A Chinese garden at Penrhyn Castle

Detail from the Chinese bird-and-flower wallpaper in the State Bedroom at Penrhyn Castle, Gwynedd. NT 1422110

Detail from the Chinese bird-and-flower wallpaper in the State Bedroom at Penrhyn Castle, Gwynedd. NT 1422110. ©National Trust Images/Paul Highnam

The autumn issue of National Trust Magazine, which is about to come out, has this image on the cover. It is the Chinese wallpaper in the State bedroom at Penrhyn Castle, depicting a garden scene. We were able to commission these new photographs for my forthcoming book on Chinese wallpapers, which will come out in October.

Section of the bird-and-flower wallpaper in the State Bedroom at Penrhyn Castle. NT 1422110

Section of the bird-and-flower wallpaper in the State Bedroom at Penrhyn Castle. NT 1422110. ©National Trust Images/Paul Highnam

We can see luxuriantly flowering trees and shrubs, some growing from decorative jardinières, with various birds and insects flitting between the branches. The picturesque rocks, prized for their sculptural qualities, are a long-standing feature of Chinese gardens.

The scenery has been painted in great detail and looks quite realistic. But in fact most of these birds and flowers have traditionally had strong symbolic associations in Chinese art. A pheasant, for instance, stands for ‘beauty’ and a peony indicates ‘rank’.

The State Bedroom at Penrhyn Castle. The architecture and much of the furniture, created in about 1830, is in the Neo-Norman style, but apparently this was not considered incompatible with Chinese wallpaper. ©National Trust Images/Paul Highnam

The State Bedroom at Penrhyn Castle. The architecture and much of the furniture, created in about 1830, is in the Neo-Norman style, but evidently this was not considered incompatible with Chinese wallpaper. ©National Trust Images/Paul Highnam

Bird-and-flower imagery has long been used in Chinese fine and decorative art to create an uplifting, auspicious atmosphere, much like classical decoration has in the west.

And if we look at this wallpaper at Penrhyn in that light, we can recognise the sophisticated decorative harmony of the scheme. The painters used lively and yet balanced palette of colours including purples and pinks, reds, oranges and yellows, various green tints and some blues and greys.

Different types of leaves have been given various smooth textures, while the ruggedness of the rocks and tree trunks is rendered in a more expressionistic manner. One can tell that the artists were confident of their skill and judgement in creating these wallpapers. As yet we don’t know who they were, just that they most likely worked in the port city of Guangzhou (or Canton).

One Response to “A Chinese garden at Penrhyn Castle”

  1. Andrew Says:

    There is an interesting document at the British Museum website that summarises the traditional symbolic meaning of various flowers, etc, in China. https://www.britishmuseum.org/pdf/Chinese_symbols_1109.pdf

    They say the peony ( 牡丹 mudan) is the “king of flowers”, the flower of spring, and is a symbol of royalty and virtue, and also of wealth and honour. Specifically, I think that is the tree peony.

    Wasn’t the pheasant one of the badges of rank for civil servants?

    Presumably a Chinese person of learning could “read” the wallpaper, just a Western person looking at an allegorical painting?

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